An insider’s look at transitioning to distance learning

Photos from Feather River College

Colleges and universities made the transition to online learning seemingly overnight as campuses were shut down due to the current COVID situation.

As with many community colleges, one strength of Feather River College (FRC) — located in rural northeastern California — is its one-on-one personal contact, as we support students in achieving their educational goals. Recently, four faculty members described what it meant to immediately transition college lectures, labs and trainings to an online format. They came from four different areas: 

  • a biologist teaching both general education lectures and laboratory courses for science majors (Anna Thompson)
  • a history professor teaching mostly large lecture general education courses (Thomas Heaney)
  • a business faculty member who teaches technical subject matter for business majors and prerequisite classes for the FRC bachelor’s degree in equine and ranch management (Rick Leonhardt)
  • an adjunct equine faculty member who leads hands-on, skill classes in training horses (Lauren Pearson

They shared their experiences in moving to online instruction, which occurred as FRC left for spring break and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the stay-at-home order.

Their take on online tools

Online tools for teaching are extensive to help the conversion. Zoom meetings can give a semblance of the face-to-face interaction and lectures. The Canvas Learning Management Systems (LMS) provides course shells and tools for providing academic content, information, grading and assignment submission. PowerPoint presentations, email and other electronic communication methods also exist.

Each faculty member developed his or her own style in teaching their particular courses, and they also developed a unique response to the online transition. This perspective is meant to provide quality assurance to the public about the college’s courses that were face-to-face a few short weeks ago and now have transitioned to online instruction. It also offers a glimpse into how FRC faculty has adapted to student needs through a new teaching modality mid-semester.

How have you transitioned your classes to online instruction, i.e., what is the structure of your classes now that they are online vs. face-to-face?

Rick Leonhardt: Fortunately, most of the business classes had already been using an online platform to post and submit assignments. Also, the reading assignments, videos and practice problems are posted online. The biggest transition has been having class lectures online using Zoom. The lectures are live during the normally scheduled class times and recorded for those students who cannot participate at the scheduled time. This has posed some challenges, but has been an overall positive experience.

Anna Thompson: I decided not to use Zoom to give students maximum flexibility as to when to do their work. Instead, I post the lectures and the lab assignment for that week on Monday morning. I assign short-essay questions and online quizzes that the students can take as often as needed to learn the material. For laboratories, I use some online activities, as well as going outside and taking pictures of the natural world and analyzing, for example, the components of the ecological hierarchy in their pictures.

Thomas Heaney: I have organized the class by week with a combination of recorded video lectures and documentary videos, along with online writing assignments.

Lauren Pearson: I use a combination of email, Canvas and Facebook private group for each class. I am not going to lie, I MISS MY STUDENTS! I myself have had to do a lot of self-evaluation … design a new way to get information to the students. Teaching horseback riding online is very challenging.  

What technology issues do students have in your classes that may hinder their learning? 

Rick Leonhardt: The most challenging technology issue for students is having a reliable internet connection. Many FRC students live in remote areas and do not have access to reliable internet. 

Anna Thompson: Some students don’t have wifi or have lost wifi because they cannot pay for it. One student had to move in with relatives so he can continue his studies as his family can’t get internet where they live. A couple of students literally work on their phones, as they do not have access to a computer or laptop. Some local students do their work in their cars in campus parking lots to use the Feather River College wifi.

Thomas Heaney: I had hoped to do some live lectures/class discussions, but according to a survey I conducted with my students, they made it clear that synchronous activities were not going to work. I did have a couple of students who did not have immediate access to reliable wifi, but they have all made adjustments or found ways to get the necessary internet access. 

Lauren Pearson: Most students have access to Canvas and email, but lack cell service depending on where they live. If students are sheltering-in-place in parts of Plumas County, they have a hard time finding online access from home without the internet.

Describe one way you ensure academic integrity of the online course so that students learn appropriate material?

Rick Leonhardt: Software systems such as Proctorio are used as a remote proctoring service program that monitors students while they take exams. Students are required to show ID and the program records both the student and the computer screen. If there is suspicious behavior, it is flagged by the program and can be reviewed by the instructor.

Anna Thompson: I have done away with formal tests for the rest of the semester to reduce the stress and anxiety around online tests in these uncertain times. By grading their homework and their online quizzes, I will know whether they are learning the material. I encouraged collaboration, but require students to write their own answers. I did have to warn a few students who collaborated with others to be more careful about writing their own answers, but it has not been a big problem. Overall, the amount of writing required has increased.

Thomas Heaney: I use Turnitin, which is very effective in identifying possible issues. The online exams and quizzes are open-book and open-note. As a result, students are generally comfortable with the material, and with the rare exception, appear to be not tempted to engage in academic dishonesty so far. 

Lauren Pearson: I stick to the syllabus and make sure the timeline of what I need to instruct is accomplished. I am very organized in my lectures and information. The facts and reading information from their textbooks, as well as online articles and videos, are easy to send to the students via online. The hardest part is getting students to try and apply themselves in the new online format. The big issue I am having is the practical “hands-on” teaching. It has been extremely challenging to teach a very hands-on physical subject like horse training online, but I am doing my best to adapt.  Since students cannot physically ride horses, I have to ask questions that make students think of past rides they have had. Some students are fortunate to still be able to ride their personal horses at home, so they are able to still apply what they are learning in class on their own.

What are some of the biggest positive surprises as you transitioned to online classes?

Rick Leonhardt: One of the biggest surprises is how resilient and adaptable the students are. They have done an incredible job of adapting to this situation. Another surprise is how some of the students who were reluctant to engage in class are more engaged using the online platform. Technology has allowed the shy and quiet students to actively participate in classroom discussions.

Anna Thompson: My students are rising to the challenge. I just finished grading their midterms which had to be take-home-online and which covered difficult material. And the exam was assigned right at the beginning of this sudden stay-at-home transition. I was originally prepared to go easy with the grading, instead I found, to my great surprise, that I did not have to relax my standards. Almost all students wrote excellent midterms even as the content was not easy to grasp. Grading these midterms made me proud to be their professor.

Thomas Heaney: The students have been very flexible, responsive and tenacious. Of the students who were attending face-to-face classes just before we switched to online instruction, 100 percent took the online midterm and continue to be engaged with the online materials. They have shown a real commitment and are to be commended. 

Lauren Pearson: For students that have access to riding their horses since returning home, I have them do riding videos and I give them individualized feedback. For the students that used a school horse, and have no other access to ride and practice on their own, I make them give feedback on the other students who have submitted riding videos. This participation is making the students become more focused when they know they are being evaluated by others in the class.

Tell me something that people may not know about either your online classes or communication you have had with students.

Rick Leonhardt: One thing people might not know about our communication with students is how faculty receive questions about all sorts of topics – not just the subjects we teach. We do our best to be available and help our students any way we can. If we don’t know the answer to a question we usually know who to connect the student with to get the help they need. Students have been very open with sharing personal information during this extraordinary time.

Anna Thompson: At the beginning of each semester, I introduce Angela Duckworth’s concept of GRIT, passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals. Curiosity, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and self-control are all behaviors one can learn to cultivate, and collectively they translate into having GRIT. In my emails to students, I refer to this concept frequently, and I started signing all my emails with #GoldenEagleGrit. Now students are using the same hashtag. Some of my students may not like this accelerated brave online world very much — I certainly do not — but we are going to get through it, and we are going to get through with a lot of learning still happening.

Thomas Heaney: I don’t know why, but I’m surprisingly hoarse from recording so many video lectures. Am I shouting the whole time into my laptop? I plan to send an anonymous survey to the students to get feedback on the video lectures, and I am both very curious and full of dread to see what they think. 

Lauren Pearson: Since I have transitioned to online, students are required to do more written self-reflection and evaluation. I noticed that students are breaking down how they responded to the horse in better detail and it slows the riding event down in their minds. When riding the horse, you only have a split-second to respond. In written self-reflection and evaluation, the student can really break down and analyze the riding process to see where they can improve. I do believe it is making students “think” more about riding, which is very exciting.

More to come

As the second smallest community college in California, and being located in rural northeastern California surrounded by the “million-acre campus,” Feather River College prides itself on the personalized support offered to all students. As the above demonstrates, FRC faculty retain this commitment during the sudden online instruction transition. This article is the first part in a series describing how FRC is responding to the challenge and maintaining a focus on the college’s mission during the COVID situation.

About the Author

Kevin Trutna
is superintendent/president of Feather River College in Quincy, California.